The EU is only an episode in European history – and is doomed to failure

The EU is only an episode in European history – and is doomed to failure

martyn radyThe EU’s drive for social, political and economic unity threatens Europe’s historical traditions of diversity, writes Martyn Rady. He argues that whilst Europe shares much in terms of common history and culture, this is not in itself sufficient to underpin political union across the continent – or indeed to foster a shared European identity.

Europe is not the same as the European Union. The European Union is only an episode in Europe’s history. The two, nevertheless, are frequently treated as if they were identical. It is, however, entirely possible to be a Europhile, in the sense of valuing and engaging with Europe’s cultures, peoples and history, and to be opposed to the European Union and thus to Britain’s continued membership of it.

Britain and continental Europe share much. Cultural, religious, philosophical and political movements and ideas have spilled across from one to the other. It would be strange if they had not, given their proximity. Nevertheless, exchanges of this kind are hardly sufficient to justify political union. The histories of Poland and Russia are similarly entangled, but no one would now suggest that they should join together.

The way that ideas have spread in Europe is important. One of the strengths of Europe has been its diversity. The separate experiences of Europe’s countries have acted as inspirations and warnings to others. The example of British manufacturing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, underpinned by the free-trade philosophy of Smith and Ricardo, overturned the regulatory and protectionist regime that prevailed across much of Central Europe. Bismarck’s early welfare state and Swiss federalism had their own emulators. Across large parts of Europe, the lesson of the French Revolution stimulated the politics of conservatism and of gradual change, and so on.

The high modernist ideology that underpins the EU is predicated on the erosion of differences between countries. It would seek to impose single solutions that are blind to complexity and inimical to the sort of local experimentation that has been one of the driving forces in European history. Not only therefore are the EU and Europe different things. By putting its stress on political, economic and social convergence, the EU may also be antithetical to Europe’s historical dynamic.

bild merkel

The front cover of Bild urges Angela Merkel not to bail out Greece again. Photo: quapan via a CC-BY 2.0 licence

The history of multinational ventures in Europe is not a good one. Over four hundred years, the Habsburg Empire was unable to cement a workable enterprise. It only held together in the nineteenth century by striking bargains between the various national groups and by keeping them all, in the words of one Austrian prime minister, ‘in a condition of even and well-modulated discontent’. It is the same in the European Union today. The European Council brokers between national governments. ‘European policy’ is not European at all, but an amalgam and compromise between contending national policies.

The Habsburg Empire was not alone in being divided by local identities. Before Bismarck, the German lands were split between states with their own different political complexions, religious affiliations and regional allegiances. They were successfully brought together after 1870 because a larger pan-German sense of belonging had taken root, having been actively promoted in literature, folklore collections, and high scholarship. In the German lands, poets, historians and lexicographers made political union possible.

France went down a different route in the nineteenth century. At its start, less than a half of France’s population spoke the French language. The Marseillaise, sung in 1792 by volunteers from the Provençal south, was incomprehensible to most Parisians. Over the course of the century, the French state made a nation of Frenchmen—coercing a sense of national belonging and a single language through the schoolroom, bureaucracy and army. A similar pattern of cultural impressment took place in nineteenth-century Bohemia. Peasants from Moravia and Austrian Silesia were made into Czechs.

A political union will only prosper if its peoples feel some sense of common belonging that makes them willing to make sacrifices for one another. This is lacking in the European Union – Germans will not make financial sacrifices for the Mediterranean countries, while other states put up barriers to keep migrants on their neighbours’ soil. Without the ambitious cultural project on which German unity was built or the drive towards cultural homogenisation undertaken in France, the European Union will remain a discordant assemblage of competing national voices, unwilling to share burdens.

So the European Union offers the worst of both worlds. Its regulatory regime and policies of convergence threaten Europe’s historical experience of learning through diversity. Yet the European Union lacks the cultural underpinnings to construct an enduring political union, based on a sense of common identity. To adapt the satirist Karl Kraus’s verdict on the Habsburg Empire, it has already become a grand experiment in failure.


Note: This post is republished from BrexitVote blog. It first appeared in History Today and at UCL’s European Institute blog.

About the Author

martyn rady

Martyn Rady is Masaryk Professor of Central European History at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


(Featured image: Leena Saarinen CC BY-NC 2.0)
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May 31st, 2016|Brexit, Featured|5 Comments


  1. Altiero July 23, 2016 at 6:41 am - Reply

    This article is so full of cliché, it’s hard to bear. From a historical perspective, also nation states are but an episode in European history. The Roman empire lasted longer than the nation state has existed. More important, it considers political union across Europe and nation states as antithetical, apparently based on the assumption of cultural essentialism. The constant shift of identities, devolution is the UK and the phenomenon that separatist movements tend to be more pro-European than the nation state they are part of suggest that the author’s narrative is but one perspective, and a very narrow one. The world’s more complex. Deal with it.

  2. James Arrowsmith June 1, 2016 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Yesterday morning–early afternoon London time–I attempted to post a comment on this article . It was not posted;instead I received a statement that my comment was ” too soon”

    What does this mean ?

    • BPP Team June 1, 2016 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      Hi James,

      I’m not sure why you received that response (it’s not been mentioned to us before, it’s perhaps a glitch we are not aware of). Your message hasn’t ended up in the spam either, so I’m not sure what has happened here. We’ll try and work it out. Please try again if you wish to comment, and see our comment policy here:

      Thanks, and sorry about that,

      BPP Team

    • Martin Baldwin-Edwards June 4, 2016 at 10:56 pm - Reply

      Obviously, foresight is something not be encouraged in an era when even hindsight barely exists:-)

  3. Sag Ichnicht May 31, 2016 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    The nationalist historical narrative which has been treated as dogma by some for far too long, is increasingly under fire. Those historians treated everything that did not fit into a national narrative with contempt and as failure. Take the Holy Roman Empire as example. It was deemed an almost one full millennium lasting failure because it did not do what nationalists thought a proper political entity has to do. None of them seemed to seriously ask themselves how something without any purpose could truly persist for so many centuries, longer than many proper empires in fact. But it never claimed to be a traditional empire in first place and never truly showed ambitions to do so either. Mr Peter Wilson wrote a fine book which counters this nationalist narrative of calling the Empire a failure simply because they could not understand it.

    The Holy Roman Empire allowed all those small realms as well as somewhat bigger ones, to have their own identities, a very high degree of freedom but at the same time, featured many ground breaking features in Europe, a parliament before there was a British parliament, a common judiciary to handle conflicts in a more impartial and fairer way than many other judiciaries of its time and citizens of that “Empire” were in fact loyal to this system even as their identities were local. it was by no means perfect or the most efficient system ever designed but it did what it was intended to do for many centuries. It was part of the “Europe” which nationalists deny to this day and which they also see in the EU. That explains why they show little sympathy for the EU as well.

    The EU isn’t in the tradition of a Hitler or Napoleon like the former mayor of London was bemused to claim, if anything it is in the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, in a modern form. Of course, major differences between those two remain but not of the kind often suggested.

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